My Shot: Hartford hangs onto history

My Shot: Hartford hangs onto history

When the Travelers
Championship takes place this week at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn.,
it will represent more than the against-all-odds survival of a 55-year-old PGA
Tour stop. It will also prove that hard work and determination can sometimes
prevail over disloyalty and greed.

Since the Greater
Hartford Jaycees substituted the tournament for turtle races as their chief
fundraiser, the largest sporting event in Connecticut has had as many names as
Elizabeth Taylor has had husbands, landing for now on the Travelers
Championship.

Through all the
name changes the tournament became the second-best-attended event on Tour
(after Phoenix) and raised more than $25Â million for charity. Hartford saw
its share of history too: Arnold Palmer earned his first pro win on U.S. soil
there in 1956, and in 2003 Suzy Whaley became the first woman to qualify for a
Tour event when she played her way in.

Whaley’s
appearance, and the buzz it generated, helped the tournament get through a
tough year. In 2002 Canon ended its 18-year run as title sponsor, sending the
Jaycees scrambling to put together a one-year, $4 million bridge plan that
would keep the tournament alive while they sought a new deal. They eventually
signed Buick, but the company’s relatively small investment forced the Jaycees
to raise another $3 million from local businesses. At the same time, the
Jaycees worked to meet escalating Tour demands, such as building a new practice
area and hiring a full-time tournament director.

You would think the
Tour would place some value on Hartford’s long tradition and effort, but the
suits in Ponte Vedra Beach had their eyes on bigger money. In January 2006–on
Friday the 13th, no less–the Tour announced its new, 37-event FedEx Cup
series, and the Buick Championship was not part of it. Instead, the tournament
was offered a spot in the Fall Series.

That didn’t go over
very well. Fans, the media and Tour pros Brad Faxon and Connecticut native
J.J. Henry, who were on the tournament board, cried foul. Following that
lead, the Jaycees decided not to accept the fall dates. Instead, they regrouped
and pursued new deals with the Champions and LPGA tours and were on the verge
of signing up with the seniors when, to everyone’s surprise, the 84 Lumber
Classic was canceled and a spot in the FedEx Cup schedule opened up.

The Jaycees sprang
into action, and even Tour commissioner Tim Finchem marveled at how quickly
they put together a four-year deal, with a two-year option, with Travelers
Insurance. So Hartford was back in business, and now Travelers is doing
everything possible to help the event regain its stature. The purse was
increased from $4.4 million to $6 million, and a $5 million,
state-of-the-art practice range will be ready in 2008. Plus, a chartered jet
ferried players and their families from the U.S. Open to Connecticut.

Once left for dead,
the little tournament that could, the Travelers Championship, may soon be
stronger than ever. The Jaycees deserve it.

Bruce Berlet has
been a Hartford Courant reporter for 37 years.


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